Typically this type of narrative processing takes place in the medial prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain behind the center of your forehead that coordinates complex behaviors and thoughts. (It's also the part of the brain that's being used when your mind starts to wander.) While it's possible to stifle this default way of thinking, trying to do so is like forcing yourself to go to the gym after years of inactivity—sure, you could fight your way through a step aerobics class if you had to, but wouldn't it be nicer to just eat Doritos on the couch?
Farb has found that people who have completed the eight-week MBSR training, on the other hand, are able to activate an entirely different part of the brain—the insula. Located deep inside your gray matter, the insula informs you of what's happening in the present moment without connecting the experience to a specific emotion. When you're thinking this way, a traffic jam doesn't seem like a problem; it's simply a bunch of cars on the road.
The point of meditation is not to stop you from having an emotional response to what's happening in your life—it's to avoid responding purely out of habit. Every situation, if you think about it, is an invitation for you to react in a certain way, but being mindful gives you the chance to decide how to RSVP. Does the sight of bumper-to-bumper traffic mean you have to get stressed-out? Or could you think of those extra 20 minutes as a chance to listen to a favorite CD? (Judging from the increase in my heart rate just from typing "bumper-to-bumper," I've got work to do.) Is it really worth getting angry at my husband over those misplaced sneakers? Or would I rather be thankful for the fact that he folded the laundry? On the flip side, if it turns out you do want to say yes to the invitation—by feeling happy about a new promotion, for example—you can use mindfulness to savor the moment more fully. It doesn't matter whether the experience is good or bad; mindfulness reminds you that when it comes to your reactions, you're the one in charge.
Still, Kabat-Zinn had warned me not to expect that anything magical would happen while I was meditating, or even that it would always feel enjoyable—a caveat that I appreciated whenever I grew irritable or uncomfortable, or found myself counting down the seconds during my daily practice. He also pointed out that meditation is not a quick fix; becoming—and staying—mindful is a lifelong process.
But as I continued experimenting each day with the guided exercises, I was happy to find that they did become easier. I developed some tricks for everyday life, too—like taking a few slow, conscious breaths to bring my attention back to the present moment, or choosing a particular sense to focus on. And I tried not to get annoyed when my mind wandered. As Kabat-Zinn says, stopping your brain from thinking would be like stopping the ocean's waves. It's more productive to simply observe the thoughts without getting carried away by them—and try to tap into the calm that exists beneath the surface.
By training myself to stay focused during the exercises, I've also gotten better at staying present when I'm not actively meditating. As a result, I've discovered that each day is dense with experiences—the breeze against my skin, the play of light on the grass, the sound of my husband's laugh—and if I want to stretch out time, all I need to do is notice them. When I find my mind racing ahead or am tempted to skip my daily practice, I remember another of Kabat-Zinn's sayings that affirms why this is an experiment I want to continue: Both figuratively and literally, we only have moments to live.
For a guide on how to cultivate mindfulness and suggestions for daily practice, download these meditation exercises. To buy Jon Kabat-Zinn's series of practice CDs, go to JonKabat-Zinn.com. To find a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program near you, go to umassmed.edu/cfm/mbsr.
Catherine Price is a freelance journalist and author of 101 Places Not to See Before You Die (Harper Paperbacks).
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From the September 2009 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
We Hear You!